My husband, Cody, is having surgery on his neck to deal with some chronic pain he has been experiencing as a result of pinched nerves. We went to the neurosurgeon this week to talk through options and details related to the surgery. This doctor talked to us in detail about what was going on in Cody's neck, what that meant, the various options including surgery, what the surgery would entail. He covered the risks associated with surgery, impressed us with some stats, inserted a humorous story about a guy trying to assemble IKEA flat packs less than a week out of surgery, and then the date options and price of the surgery itself. He then said the obligatory, 'Do you have any questions?' at which point Cody pulled out his list of things he/we wanted to ask. After addressing 2 of them, the doctor said, 'well, we've spent awhile here talking now, why don't you go outside and have a cup of tea and if you have any other questions, my receptionist can help.' My poker face failed me in hiding my disappointment about being cut-off.
People just want to be heard
Outside, having a coffee and being chastised by Cody for making the last few minutes uncomfortable, it clicked. In fact, Cody was the one that figured out why I was pi$$ed off. 'He did all the talking', he said. There was the issue. The doctor hadn't given us a chance to ask our questions, consider the impact of the decision we were making and explore our options with a full set of information and in the presence of a medical expert. Because the doctor was in the know (he's the medical professional, after all), he'd done this surgery countless times before, he was on the clock and he led the conversation. He ignored the fact that this was all new to us and we needed the time to process. Upon our reflection, we realised that in his monologue, he had in fact answered most of the questions that we were going to ask. He had given us the reassurance that we were planning to seek. But because we hadn't done the 'question and answer dance', we didn't feel heard and now a week on, are still not 100% comfortable.
Knowing the questions to ask
In one of my recent webinars, I explored with the participants a simple model around why we ask questions. Do we ask them for credit, clarification, curiosity or contribution? Other than asking questions for credit, I believe that asking questions for the remaining 3 reasons has a place. An important place. Because asking questions provides an opportunity to engage and mobilise employees to deliver on our organisational strategies.
The Q&A dance
I'd say the most effective way to engage staff is allowing time and space for a 'Q&A dance'. Let's provide the following example: You are sitting in a meeting with the General Manager group, and you might be discussing how you deliver the FY20 strategy. You'll be focused on hitting the bottom line number, and in particular realising the cost savings that you aggressively set at the start of the year. However, you also know that those costs are a function of business activity and therefore you need to engage 'the business' in order to achieve the savings. The Q&A dance would be: 'What would the increase in marketing activity look like?' (Curiosity) 'What would that cost?' (Clarification) 'What would the impact of that be to our current year savings target of 5%' (Contribution) You are guiding people through a thought process that allows them to understand and contribute to a conclusion.
I don't have time for dancing
In the reality of our time-poor context, that's where we can jump straight to asking questions for contribution*. In order to ask a question that 'contributes' to the conversation, you might ask, 'I can see that ramping up our marketing activity will deliver increased sales in the long term. How does this align with the our goal of reducing spend this year by 5%?'. You can see that asking questions for contribution engages the relevant people in a discussion where they can seek to understand and determine how to reach an outcome.
What happens when we take away the question?
Imagine we take that away and replace it with 'We plan to increase the marketing activity on the basis that this will have a long term upside to our sales and reduce our spending next year. However, we know this will increase this year's spend so we will put in place a hiring freeze so as to reduce recruitment costs and make-up up the overage. Oh, time is up, meeting is over. Have a great day.' It's clear, it's direct, it delivers an outcome, but it ignores the fact that other people will be impacted by the decision and has not allowed for the group to ask questions and understand the implications.
Sometimes the Q&A dance is equally important as the questions themselves
Like my experience this week with the neurosurgeon, does it change the outcome? No. We will still go ahead with the surgery. Has it been frustrating to the point of painful coming to that conclusion? Yes, absolutely. Allowing the space to ask questions is extremely important, especially when you are trying to get buy-in or seek to get someone else comfortable with a decision. Simply providing information doesn't bring with it the same experience. If employee experience or customer experience is on your agenda, then take note. Even if you know what they're going to ask and how to answer them, allow your team and your stakeholders the space to ask questions. Improve the questioning culture in your organisation. Better questions make better answers. Just allow time and space for them.